Ellen DeGeneres' talk show is back for an 18th season following accusations that certain staffers presided over a toxic work environment that festered under the watch of a host known for her kindness.
Usually when a TV show goes on its regularly scheduled summer hiatus, the break provides much needed time to slow down a bit, rest and perhaps reconfigure a few things so that everyone comes back to work in the fall rejuvenated and ready to hit the ground running.
The Ellen DeGeneres Show didn't have a restful summer hiatus. Though the public has been promised a reconfiguration.
Perhaps fitting for a year in which the world feels hopelessly upside down, the Daytime Emmy-amassing talk show host whose personal brand is rooted in generosity and kindness came under fire for presiding over a historically toxic work environment, one that didn't go unnoticed by some of the celebrities who have passed through her studio over the years since Ellen premiered in 2003.
While it wasn't DeGeneres who was accused of any specific egregious behavior, she was called out for seemingly being too above it all and out of reach to her workaday staff to know (or, some say, care) what was going on behind the scenes of her hugely successful show.
At the same time, numerous people—those who count her as a friend and others who've merely crossed paths—have come to the entertainer's defense, saying they've had nothing but positive interactions with DeGeneres and Ellen, which kicks off its 18th season today.
While at one point this summer there was speculation Ellen might not come back at all, that DeGeneres would take the controversy as her cue to pack it in despite being renewed through 2022, the show has gone on—albeit a couple weeks behind schedule, the season premiere originally slotted for Sept. 9.
But, once again befitting 2020, what production hasn't had to change gears as it figures out how to navigate a pandemic-affected new normal?
In mid-March, like pretty much every other show that taped in front of an audience, Ellen shut down in-studio production, DeGeneres passing the time before filming resumed—with a skeleton crew, interviewing guests remotely—posting funny bits online showing her lolling around the house and making casual phone calls to the likes of similarly homebound Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel.
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The backlash was swift.
Not against DeGeneres specifically, but against the rich and famous in general, as many regular folks decried those who were riding out stay-at-home orders in spacious homes with pools and walk-in closets, with a nanny or two on hand to help care for the kids or at least no worries whatsoever about where their next paycheck was coming from, for daring to have anything resembling a complaint about their present circumstances. (The "Imagine" mash-up featuring numerous celebrities singing a few bars each of the John Lennon classic that Gal Gadot shared on March 18, which decidedly was not received the way the Wonder Woman star must have envisioned it would be, may have been the tipping point.)
Let's just say, fuses were short and real life was starting to resemble the panic that's so ubiquitous online when, on March 20, podcaster Kevin T. Porter tweeted, "Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen Degeneres always talks about! She's also notoriously one of the meanest people alive. Respond to this with the most insane stories you've heard about Ellen being mean & I'll match every one w/ $2 to @LAFoodBank."
So, that went viral, and two days later Porter followed up with, "Well this got out of hand! It's now hard to tell which stories are real or not, so I've rounded up to 300 and donated $600!"
Dots were quick connected and it turned out Porter had an issue with DeGeneres for awhile, having posted a scathing response last year to the photo of her sitting next to former President George W. Bush at a football game in October. Or, more expressly, his response was to what the talk show host said about the reactions to the picture (which rubbed some people the wrong way for a variety of reasons), including, "When I say, 'Be kind to one another,' I don't mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone—doesn't matter."
Porter wrote on Medium, "Over the course of a career built ostensibly on a comedy of empathy, DeGeneres has in reality reduced the idea of having character to a marketing strategy, diminishing 'kindness' to a dinky parlor trick deployed for status and profit. Along the way, she's actually been rather, well, unkind." He mentioned a "decades-old Los Angeles whisper network of people who have encountered a cruel DeGeneres off camera, either in passing or in her employment. The stories have never risen to tarnishing her national image but dog her enough to have warranted a curiously vacant on-the-record denial."
He linked out to a December 2018 New York Times profile of DeGeneres, in which, referring to rumors that she wasn't always nice to people she works with, she said, "That bugs me if someone is saying that because it's an outright lie. The first day I said: 'The one thing I want is everyone here to be happy and proud of where they work, and if not, don't work here.' No one is going to raise their voice or not be grateful. That's the rule to this day."
But back to 2020.
On April 16, Variety reported that Ellen's core crew of about 30 people went more than a month before receiving any information in writing about what to expect moving forward or any check-ins about their well-being, leaving some staffers furious about the lack of communication. They were also reportedly irked by the decision to hire an outside, non-union company to handle the technical aspects of producing the show from DeGeneres' house. Sources told the publication that, when they did finally hear from executives, they were told to prepare for a 60 percent pay cut.
Ellen distributor Warner Bros. Television replied in a statement, "Our executive producers and Telepictures are committed to taking care of our staff and crew and have made decisions first and foremost with them in mind." The crew was still being paid the same rate, the studio said, but for fewer hours. The studio also acknowledged to Variety that communication could have been better, but basically the pandemic had made everything more difficult. As for the new tech crew, "due to social distancing requirements, technical changes in the way the show is produced had to be made to comply with city ordinances and public health protocols," Warner Bros. said.
And then on July 16, BuzzFeed News ran a story, quoting individuals who wished to remain anonymous, that detailed allegations of a toxic work environment behind the scenes at Ellen.
"People focus on rumors about how Ellen is mean and everything like that, but that's not the problem," one former employee said. "The issue is these three executive producers running the show who are in charge of all these people [and] who make the culture and are putting out this feeling of bullying and being mean. They feel that everybody who works at The Ellen Show is lucky to work there: 'So if you have a problem, you should leave because we'll hire someone else because everybody wants to work here.'"
A current staffer said that the generally feeling at the office was that "if you have an issue, don't even think about bringing it up."
The detailed examples of problematic experiences didn't involve DeGeneres personally, but that didn't make her an innocent bystander, another former staff member noted.
"If she wants to have her own show and have her name on the show title, she needs to be more involved to see what's going on," that person told BuzzFeed. "I think the executive producers surround her and tell her, ‘Things are going great, everybody's happy,' and she just believes that, but it's her responsibility to go beyond that."
The day the report came out, Ellen executive producers Mary Connelly, Ed Glavin and Andy Lassner said in a statement to E! News: "Over the course of nearly two decades, 3,000 episodes, and employing over 1000 staff members, we have strived to create an open, safe, and inclusive work environment. We are truly heartbroken and sorry to learn that even one person in our production family has had a negative experience."
They continued, "It's not who we are and not who we strive to be, and not the mission Ellen has set for us. For the record, the day to day responsibility of the Ellen show is completely on us. We take all of this very seriously and we realize, as many in the world are learning, that we need to do better, are committed to do better, and we will do better."
A source told E! News after the BuzzFeed report came out that current staffers were "thrilled to see that the bad behavior at the show is now being exposed," that they had been sharing their experiences privately among each other for years and it felt "validating" to see the allegations out in the open."
The source also concurred that it seemed as if the executive producers went out of their way to keep DeGeneres out of the loop when it came to any behind-the-scenes drama.
Days later, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that a memo had been sent to Ellen employees informing them that Warner Bros. and a third party company would be conducting an investigation into the claims made about the working environment at the show. "Staffing changes" were also said to be in the works.
On July 30, NBC News confirmed that DeGeneres had sent a letter to show employees in which she expressed disappointment over the allegations in the news.
"On day one of our show, I told everyone in our first meeting that The Ellen DeGeneres Show would be a place of happiness—no one would ever raise their voice, and everyone would be treated with respect," the host wrote. "Obviously, something changed, and I am disappointed to learn that this has not been the case.
"For that, I am sorry. Anyone who knows me knows it's the opposite of what I believe and what I hoped for our show. As we've grown exponentially, I've not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I'd want them done. Clearly some didn't. That will now change and I'm committed to ensuring this does not happen again."
But that was not the last word on the subject.
The same day, BuzzFeed News reported that dozens of former show employees—men and women—alleged that executive producers had engaged in sexual misconduct. The report singled out various producers, including one who was accused of regularly making sexually explicit comments in the office.
That producer adamantly denied any and all allegations in a statement to E! News, which read in part, "I categorically deny any kind of sexual impropriety. I'm horrified that some of my attempts at humor may have caused offense."
The statement continued, "I have always aimed to treat everyone on the staff with kindness, inclusivity and respect. In my whole time on the show, to my knowledge, I've never had a single HR or inter-personal complaint made about me, and I am devastated beyond belief that this kind of malicious and misleading article could be published."
A source who used to work on the show told E! News, "I did not see anything out of the norm. There were definitely inappropriate things said. I wasn't ever offended. I never felt any malice."
People would get yelled at from time to time, the source explained, "that kind of stuff, but not abusive." At the same time, they added, "Inappropriate things were said that, in this climate, you can't say now."
But so began a month of back and forth between those who seemingly had just been waiting for this story to break and those who had nothing but the fondest memories
One of the former staffers who spoke to Buzzfeed, Hedda Muskat, a producer on the show when it premiered in 2003 until May 2004, opened up to The Wrap in early August, saying that she didn't witness any sexual misconduct or impropriety, but the toxicity was very real—and no one worked in a vacuum at Ellen.
"Ed didn't act independently," Muskat said. "It was Ed and Ellen and Andy and Mary. Ed was a bully, but he worked for Ellen. It was her show." (Warner Bros. and Glavin had no comment at the time.)
Upon completion of the review into the culture at Ellen, which involved conducting interviews with dozens of current and former employees, Warner Bros. said in a statement that not all of the allegations were corroborated, but they were "disappointed that the primary findings of the investigation indicated some deficiencies related to the show's day-to-day management. We have identified several staffing changes, along with appropriate measures to address the issues that have been raised and are taking the first steps to implement them. Warner Bros. and Ellen DeGeneres are all committed to ensuring a workplace based on respect and inclusion. We are confident this course of action will lead us to the right way forward for the show."
In mid-August, it was reported that Glavin and fellow executive producer Kevin Leman, as well as co-executive producer Jonathan Norman—all people named as alleged perpetuators of the toxic culture in published reports—had been fired. A Warner Bros. spokesperson confirmed that the show and the trio had "parted ways."
In the meantime, the controversy behind the scenes had set off a public he-said, she-said among DeGeneres' detractors and defenders, her supporters including the expected (such as wife Portia de Rossi and brother Vance DeGeneres) and some who didn't have to wade into the fray but wanted to speak up on her behalf.
"I know how lonely it gets, because I know that these are times when people just turn their back on you," Kevin Hart, who was spotted having lunch with DeGeneres in early August, told Deadline of why he went to bat for his friend (who had offered him a chance to explain himself after he came under fire for past homophobic tweets and dropped out of hosting the Oscars in 2019). "So for the ones that you love, that are close to your heart, you just want them to have some support, when it seems that there is none out there, and that's just who I am as a person."
Katy Perry tweeted that she only had "positive experiences" appearing on Ellen, and later told the Los Angeles Times that she wasn't trying to discount anyone else's perspective, but "I wanted to only speak from my own experience. I have over 100 million people that follow me on Twitter, so not everyone is going to agree with me. And I'm not here to make everyone agree with me."
As the pre-Labor Day portion of the summer started to wind down, changes were being made behind the scenes and people started to prepare to go back to work after the most fraught hiatus in the show's history.
"But it's when we go through these things, I guess, that we learn the most about ourselves and maybe even some growth," Lassner, who's been working on Ellen since it launched, said upon his return to social media at the end of August. "But to tell you it hasn't been rough would be a lie, and I've always been honest with you. So, it's been rough."
Staffers are said to be pleased, though, with some of the new policies being implemented, including more paid days off and a renewed commitment to foster a more inclusive working environment. Stephen "tWitch" Boss, Ellen's longtime DJ and a fan favorite, has been promoted to co-executive producer. And an appearance from the contrite host herself at a virtual town hall last month certainly didn't hurt.
"Everyone was encouraged, in multiple ways, to speak up on anything they feel," a source told E! News about the meeting.
But while all this has been taking place behind the scenes, now it's time for DeGeneres to look into the cameras and level with her audience.
And while what we know for sure is that this season premiere won't be anything like last year's, a jolly sit-down with Kris and Kylie Jenner in front of a packed house, the host says she will be discussing what went down this summer.
"I can't wait to get back to work and back to our studio," she said in announcing the Sept. 21 premiere date. "And, yes, we're gonna talk about it."
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